Just who is Eric Thames, the 30-year-old slugger who has baseball buzzing with a league-leading 11 home runs this year? Unless you follow South Korean baseball, or closely studied the Toronto and Seattle benches in 2012, you might not be sure. Here’s what we know:
He spent the last three years playing in South Korea. Thames joined the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization in December 2013, hitting .348 and averaging 41 homers and 126 R.B.I. over three seasons. He also played nine games in the 2013 Venezuelan Winter League with the Leones del Caracas.
He was once drafted by the Yankees. New York selected him up in the 39th round of the 2007 draft, but he elected to return to Pepperdine. The Toronto Blue Jays took him in round 7 the next year.
He was a middling major-league player before going abroad. Thames played for the Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners in 2011 and 2012, but failed to make much of an impression. He batted .250 with 21 home runs in 181 games over two seasons. He spent 2013 in the minor-league systems of Seattle and Baltimore.
He’s on pace for 89 home runs. O.K., so he probably won’t break the home run record this season. But through 20 games, he has 11 home runs, which leads the majors (the next closest is seven homers). He also leads baseball in slugging percentage (.929), on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.411) and runs (25). He’s also hitting .371.
He won a Kia Sorento as South Korea’s Most Valuable Player. In 2015, Thames edged the two-time league M.V.P. Park Byung-ho by just six votes, 50-44, to win the honor. He also got a crown of flowers.
He honed his swing by watching videos of other players. While playing in South Korea, Thames said, he essentially served as his own hitting coach. He watched interviews on technique with stars like the Detroit sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, absorbing their lessons and teaching himself a new swing after finding his old one too inconsistent.
He’s a bargain (so far). Thames has a three-year, $16 million deal with a club option for 2020. His $4 million salary makes him the Brewers’ fifth-highest paid player this season. It’s still more than the $3.5 million he made with the Dinos in 2015. Because of his late start, he is not eligible for arbitration until 2020 or free agency until 2022.
He’s getting drug tested a lot. After hitting his 11th homer on Tuesday, Thames joked about how often he was getting tested for performance-enhancing drugs. According to MLB.com reporter Adam McCalvy, it was the third time Thames had been tested this year (including once in spring training). “If people keep thinking I’m on stuff, I’ll be here every day. I have lots of blood and urine,” Thames said after Tuesday’s 9-1 win against Cincinnati.
The poor Reds are getting the brunt of his bat. Thames broke out during a series at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark April 13-16, hitting five homers in four games after having hit just one in his first seven games of the season. This week the Brewers are hosting the Reds in Milwaukee, and Thames picked right back up where he left off, hitting three homers in the first two games: an 11-7 win on Monday and a 9-1 victory Tuesday.
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